Pamphleteer, or “Little Brother”, is a propaganda robot created by the Institute for Applied Autonomy (IAA) which distributes subversive literature. It uses aesthetics of cuteness in order to bypass the restrictions that activists have from social conditioning to spread their messages, or distribute propaganda. The robot has an aesthetic reminiscing of retro-futuristic science fiction. The IAA was able to observe that people are more likely to accept literature from Little Brother than human activists.
This project feels like a speculation on the future of civil disobedience, and an exploration of a new form of resistance. It is a statement against censorship, and as explained by technologyreview.com,
“while other researchers fashion robots to work in environments that are physically hazardous to humans, the IAA is building robots to speak out in areas where free speech has been regulated out of existence. The IAA takes technologies that have been developed to serve corporate, institutional and military interests and uses them to challenge and subvert those interests”. Montfort, Nick. 2001, September 1st. (https://www.technologyreview.com/s/400783/roboprotest/)
It is then, in a way, an attempt by the IAA to turn technology against its creators by changing the purpose it serves. The same technology developed by corporate industries and the military is now used to distribute propaganda against these same two institutions.
Pamphleteer shows how technology can be used for either manipulation or more efficient communication. By giving it this “cute” aesthetics and a childlike voice, people will accept messages from this robot more than they would from human activists. The form and content have very different tones, and this deception allows spreading messages that people would have been more likely to ignore if not for the aesthetics of the robot. It also highlights a legal grey area, as in Pamphleteer is allowed to spread propaganda in public places where human activists are not allowed to push their ideas. It also questions the concept of agency through technology. The only risk the IAA was facing while using their disobedient robots was the seizure of their devices, but they were unlikely to face consequences as individuals.
Pamphleteer is one of the three civilly disobedient robots that the IAA has built so far. Another one is GraffitiWriter (which then evolved into StreetWriter, a more advanced iteration), a remote-controlled robot that uses spray paint cans to paint on roads and sidewalks. It has been used over 200 times in seven different cities by a variety of people. StreetWriter is the bigger-scale iteration of GraffitiWriter, as its graffitis can be read from low-flying airplanes. Just like Little Brother, GraffitiWriter can be used as a propaganda tool, as people who program it decide of the messages it will write on the sidewalks. Another thing that both robots share is their ability to be used for shifting responsibility and perceived agency from the activists to their device. If people disagree with the messages the robots are here to spread, it will be harder for them to have emotional negative responses towards a machine, which they will perceive as a non-thinking entity. They may understand that the device is programmed by an activist, but also know that preaching to - or getting mad at - a robot is vain and therefore will refrain from it. The propaganda distributed by Little Brother might not be tolerated if distributed by a human, just like a human activist physically spray painting activist messages onto public sidewalks and roads may be arrested. With these two robots, activists can spread their messages more safely, as they do not need to be physically on site. Furthermore, if the activity of the robots is deemed illegal by the authorities, all they can do is seize the robots, and leave the human unpunished (except for the loss of their device), while the activists have a good chance of remaining anonymous.
Just like Pamphleteer, GraffitiWriter uses robotics to create speculation on a a possible new kind of human-less civil disobedience that allows for a kind of activism that would be much riskier if performed by humans. Both robots allow for the spreading of ideas and propaganda under the cover of a faceless device that keeps its creators relatively safe from any consequence and repercussion of these actions.
Another project addressing the issue of agency through technology is the Random Darknet Shopper. Random Darknet Shopper was created by two Swiss artists, Karmen Weisskopf and Domagoj Smoljom, is an automated online bot that shops random items on the Deep web with a weekly budget of $100. The bot is shown along with the items it has purchased. The entire collection was seized in 2014 after the bot bought a bag of ecstasy pills. The grey area of responsibility within the case raised the issue of liability for this purchase:
“The authorities were unsure about how to build a case, though. “It was a bit unclear who they could press charges against,” Ms Weisskopf said. “They were unwilling to press charges against the bot. They decided that within the realm of art it should be possible to look at such things within an exhibition.” Grant, Katie. 2015, December 11th.(http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/news/random-darknet-shopper-exhibition-featuring-automated-dark-web-purchases-opens-in-london-a6770316.html)
Just like Little Brother and GraffitiWriter, the Random Darknet Shopper ended up performing an action that could have gotten any human in legal trouble, while its makers got away with it. It was considered a crime committed by an “independently-thinking” device, rather than the crime of building a device that had the potential and freedom to break the law. It brings up an interesting legal point. Since, in programming, it is impossible for any generative action to be 100% random as the programmer defines the constraints within which the program works, is there such thing as not being held responsible for the actions your robots take, even when things come down to a worst-case scenario? Should it be legal to even program anything that has even the slightest chance to break the law?
Where the first two robots highlight the shift of agency, or the lack of perceived responsibilities when an action is performed by a technological device, the Shopper purposely shows the potential lack of control that can happen when actions are performed through these devices.
Collection of objects bought by the Random Darknet Shopper